Robert F. Kennedy and the 82 Days That Inspired AmericaHistorians/History
tags: RFK, Kennedys
In 1968, America was a wounded nation. The wounds were moral ones, and the Vietnam War and three summers of inner- city riots had inflicted them on the national soul, challenging Americans’ belief that they were a uniquely noble and honorable people. Americans saw news footage from South Vietnam, such as the 1965 film of U.S. Marines setting fire to thatched huts in the village of Cam Ne with cigarette lighters and flamethrowers as women and children ran for safety, and realized they were capable of atrocities once considered the province of their enemies. They saw smoke rising over Washington, D.C., during the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., soldiers with machine guns guarding the Capitol, federal troops patrolling the streets of American cities for the first time since the Civil War, and asked themselves how this could be happening in their City Upon a Hill.
Nineteen sixty- eight was an election year, and the presidential candidates all promised to win or negotiate an end to the Vietnam War and to pacify America’s cities with new social programs, draconian law enforcement, or both. But only one candidate, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, recognized the moral wounds and promised to heal them. Days after announcing his candidacy on March 16, he accused President Lyndon Johnson’s administration of abandoning “the generous impulses that are the soul of this nation” and said he was running to offer “a way in which the people themselves can lead the way back to those ideals which are the source of national strength and generosity and compassion of deed.”
During his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Kennedy told Americans that they were individually responsible for what their government had done in their name in Vietnam and for what it had failed to do at home for minorities and the poor. He said they could not acquit themselves of this responsibility simply by voting for a new president and new policies. Instead, they would have to participate in the healing process. Because Kennedy had managed his late brother’s 1960 presidential campaign and served in his cabinet as attorney general, he understood that following a crude and divisive campaign with a highminded presidency would be difficult, and healing a morally wounded nation after running an immoral campaign would be impossible. Because he understood this, his campaign is a template for how a candidate should run for the White House in a time of moral crisis.
Since 1968, the word hope has become the oratorical equivalent of an American flag lapel pin, a de rigueur rhetorical flourish amounting to a vague promise of better days. But the hope that Robert Kennedy offered was specific: that Americans’ belief in their integrity and decency could be restored. His assassination on June 5, eighty- two days after he had announced his candidacy, represented not just the death of another Kennedy or of a promising young leader, but the death of this hope. This explains why the most dramatic display of public grief for an American citizen who had never been elected to the presidency unfolded on June 8, 1968, when a twenty- one- car funeral train, its engine draped in black bunting, carried Kennedy’s body from his funeral in New York to his burial in Washington.
Trains carrying the remains of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt traveled at a mournful pace, passing bonfires, bands, and weeping crowds, and stopping for tributes. But Kennedy’s train was scheduled to travel nonstop and at a normal rate of speed. Crowds were expected, but no one imagined that on a steamy Saturday afternoon two million people would head for the tracks, wading through marshes, hiking across meadows, and slithering under fences, filling tenement balconies, clambering onto factory roofs, standing in junkyards and cemeteries, peering down from bridges, viaducts, and bluffs, placing 100,000 coins on the tracks, waving hand- lettered goodbye bobby signs, and forging a 226- mile- long chain of grief and despair.
Political reporter Theodore White, one of the 1,146 passengers, wrote, “It was only, however, when the funeral train that was to bear him to Washington emerged from the tunnel under the Hudson that one could grasp what kind of a man he was and what he had meant to Americans.” Once the train crossed into New Jersey, mourners jamming station platforms and spilling onto northbound tracks forced the engineer to reduce his speed. After a northbound express killed two people standing on the tracks in Elizabeth, the Penn Central halted all other traffic on the line and the funeral train continued to Washington at half speed. Inside the coaches, some of Kennedy’s ten children played with balloons in the dining car while their mother, her black veil pulled back over her head, walked through the coaches, greeting mourners. Passengers ate in the dining cars, drank until the bar car ran dry, or remained determinedly sober. They laughed, cried, or sat in stony silence, found this impromptu wake distressing or a fitting tribute. But they all stared out the windows and saw their grief reflected in the faces of people whom they usually flew over or sped past.
Looking out those windows were many of the people responsible for the political and cultural life of the nation during the years since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration: New York socialites and Massachusetts backroom pols, Hollywood celebrities and media heavyweights, star athletes and famous writers, architects and opponents of the Vietnam War, men who had served in John Kennedy’s administration and might have served in Bobby’s. There was Charles Evers, whom Bobby Kennedy had comforted after his brother, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was assassinated in 1963, and who was now thinking about Bobby: “Where, dear God, is the man to take his place?” There was Coretta Scott King, whom Bobby had comforted after her husband was assassinated in April of that year, and Jackie Kennedy, who had told former White House aide Arthur Schlesinger that she feared “the same thing” that had happened to her husband would happen to Bobby because “there is so much hatred in this country, and more people hate Bobby than hated Jack.”
Passengers stared out the windows and saw men in undershirts, sport shirts, uniforms, and suits: crying, saluting, standing at attention, and holding their hard hats over their hearts. They saw women in madras shorts, house dresses, and Sunday dresses: weeping, kneeling, covering their faces, and holding up children as if telling them, “You look at Robert Kennedy, and that’s the way you should lead your life.” They saw people who were also mourning Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, although they may not have known it, and people who were weeping because they sensed that this signified the end of something, although they were not sure what. They saw some of the same derelict factories, creaky tenements, shuttered stores, and crimebattered neighborhoods that anyone traveling this route today still sees, but might not be seeing had Robert Kennedy lived.
Even after the air- conditioning failed and the food ran out, some passengers were saying, “I hope this train ride never ends,” because they knew this was the last time that Bobby Kennedy would bring them together. They wept when high school bands played “Taps” as the train slid through stations at Trenton and New Brunswick, and when mourners in the Philadelphia and Baltimore stations sang Kennedy’s favorite hymn, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; they wept when police bands played “The Star- Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” and again when they passed diamonds where Little Leaguers stood at attention along the baselines, heads bowed and caps held over their hearts.
Because anyone who owned an American flag had flown it or brought it, they saw flags flying at half- staff in front of factories and schools, dipped by American Legion honor guards, and waved by Cub Scouts. Because anyone owning a uniform had worn it, they saw policemen in gold braid and white gloves, fire companies standing at attention next to their trucks, and veterans in Eisenhower jackets and overseas caps snapping salutes.
They saw the kind of white working- class backlash voters who had supported former Alabama governor George Wallace’s 1964 candidacy for the Democratic nomination, and would vote again for Wallace or Republican Richard Nixon in November, although until four days before many had planned to vote for Robert Kennedy. Today, these whites had not only turned out to mourn a politician who was an acknowledged champion of black Americans, and who had condemned an American war as “deeply wrong”; they had decided that the most fitting way to do this was to wear a uniform and wave a flag.
“Marvelous crowds,” Arthur Schlesinger told Kenny O’Donnell, a former White House aide to John Kennedy who had been Bobby Kennedy’s Harvard classmate.
“Yes,” O’Donnell replied. “But what are they good for?”
But Adalbert de Segonzac of France Soir noticed that they were the same kind of people—he called them “small white people”—who had cheered Kennedy in the working- class towns of northern Indiana. They may not have been good for anything now, he thought, but they proved something, and he opened his article about the funeral train, “Robert Kennedy won the American election today.”
Richard Harwood of the Washington Post saw “trembling nuns” and “adoring children,” reported that blacks cried most, and concluded, “It may not have had the grandeur of the last train ride Abraham Lincoln took through the weeping countryside a century ago. But no one could be sure of that.”
Not since Lincoln had black Americans embraced a white politician as passionately and completely. They, as well as many whites, feared that Robert Kennedy’s assassination, like Lincoln’s, had eliminated the only leader who could heal and unify a wounded nation. Some of the spectators who broke into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the train passed through Baltimore and Philadelphia may have been making the Kennedy–Lincoln connection as well; those gathered at the Lincoln Memorial who flicked on lighters, held up matches, and sang “The Battle Hymn” as his cortege paused en route to Arlington certainly were. NBC commentator David Brinkley called Kennedy “the only white politician left who could talk to both races” and compared his assassination to Lincoln’s, and as images of Kennedy’s funeral train appeared on the television screen, another newsman read an account of Lincoln’s funeral train, saying, “The people are lined up along the tracks . . . particularly black people. They have built bonfires for miles, and the train is proceeding within the parallel lines of bonfires. . . . And so the train bearing the body of Abraham Lincoln reached Washington.”
After the accident at Elizabeth, the train traveled so slowly that its passengers noticed details about the people outside their windows. They saw a long- haired girl on a horse, five nuns standing on tiptoes in a yellow pickup truck, a crowd of young black militants with Afros holding up clenched fists, white policemen cradling black children in their arms, a family with a sign reading the gebharts are sad, and five black boys in church clothes, each holding a rose. AP reporter Joe Mohbat and Jack Miller, a prosecutor who had served as chief of the Criminal Division in Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department, broke down and wept when the train passed a line of saluting schoolchildren, a reminder of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket. Gertrude Wilson of the Amsterdam News put her hands against the window and sobbed at the sight of a black woman in Baltimore clutching a hand- lettered sign that said HOPE.
Sylvia Wright of Life remembered a wedding party standing in a Delaware meadow. The bridesmaids held the hems of their pink and green dresses in one hand, their bouquets in the other. As the last car carrying Kennedy’s coffin passed, they extended their arms and tossed their flowers against its side. After seeing this, and the solemn Boy Scouts, black women prostrate with grief, and brawny white men gripping tiny flags in ham- hock hands as tears rolled down their cheeks, Wright asked herself the question that has become the silent descant of most everything written or said about Bobby Kennedy: “What did he have that he could do this to people?”
On the twentieth anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, author Jack Newfield called it “a wound that hurts more, not less, as time passes.” On its twenty- fifth anniversary, Judi Cornelius, a Native American woman who had arranged Kennedy’s visit to her reservation, visited his grave at Arlington only to discover that, she said, “My heart ached just like it had two and a half de cades earlier, and some wounds to [our] tender dreams never heal.” On its thirtieth, former aide Peter Edelman told a reporter, “I had a dream for years that he [Kennedy] came back alive. Actually, I still do.” And a year after that, New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis said, “The year after he died, I wrote a column about him. ‘Time,’ I wrote, ‘does not diminish the sense that life without him is incomplete.’ Thirty- one years later, I still feel that way.”
What did he have?
Congressman John Lewis, who had been on Kennedy’s campaign staff, asks himself “What would Bobby do?” before casting a difficult vote in the House of Representatives. Kennedy’s former press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, who had announced Kennedy’s death to reporters at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, saying, “Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968. . . . He was forty- two years old,” remembers him whenever he hears “The trumpet shall sound” aria in the Messiah, “because Bob Kennedy was the trumpet, and he’s still sounding for me.” Doug German, a young Kennedy volunteer in Nebraska, says he abandoned party politics afterward because “The music died for me.” John Bartlow Martin, who wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy before writing them for Bobby, went into seclusion at his home in rural Michigan, writing in his diary, “It’s over, the brief bright dream. Last time they let us have it for three years [ JFK’s presidency]. . . . Now I feel nothing but bleak despair. . . . [Before] there was the thought, ‘well, there’s always Bob: Now there isn’t.’ ” Jerry Bruno, Kennedy’s hard- boiled advance man, claims the politics were never the same for him, adding, “It was like all of our lives just stopped.” Life photographer Bill Eppridge never asked to cover another campaign, and says, “When you get to the pinnacle what else is there? It would have been like going back and shooting weddings.” And whenever Eppridge visits the Vietnam War memorial, he finds himself looking at the names of servicemen killed after January 15, 1969, when Kennedy might have been inaugurated, wondering how many would still be alive. Attorney Jim Tolan, who had prepared the way for—in political parlance, “advanced”—many of Kennedy’s appearances that spring, leaves the room whenever images of him appear in a televi ion documentary. “I fell in love with Robert Kennedy, with his goodness,” he says. “Listen, I loved that man.” Associated Press correspondent Joe Mohbat, who spent more time in close physical proximity to him than any reporter that spring, lost his taste for journalism and became a lawyer. “I can still see him with his shirt sleeves rolled up, and his hairy muscular forearms,” he says. “One lid covers more of one eye than the other—a kind of droopy lid—and there is an absolute intensity about him, even when he’s joking. There will never be anyone like him. History won’t allow it, the media won’t allow it, the blogs won’t allow it.” He stops before adding in a choked voice, “You really want to know what Bob Kennedy was? He was fucking beautiful.”
What did he have?
Those still mourning him usually mention Hugh McDonald, his twenty- nine- year- old assistant press secretary, perhaps because McDonald’s grief was an extreme version of their own. He had dashed into the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel seconds after the shots and handed his suit jacket to bodyguard Bill Barry, who used it to stanch the blood flowing from the wound in Kennedy’s head. McDonald wept as he removed Kennedy’s shoes to make him more comfortable. Later, he wandered the corridors of the Ambassador Hotel and Good Samaritan Hospital, clutching a pair of size 81⁄2 black shoes with arch supports, wearing a blank expression, and saying, “I’ve got his shoes . . . I’ve got his shoes.” Because McDonald had been in charge of checking the credentials of those entering the room where Kennedy was speaking, he blamed himself for admitting the assassin. He suffered from shock and depression, ended up divorced, attempted suicide, and died in a Los Angeles rooming house in March 1978, ten years to the month after Robert Kennedy had announced his candidacy.
What did he have?
Director John Frankenheimer, who drove Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel on the night of the assassination, developed a drinking problem that crippled his career for two decades. Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, who was steps away when Kennedy was shot, suffered months of paranoia, using public telephones and fictitious names to communicate with friends because he believed he was next. Singer Rosemary Clooney, who was also at the Ambassador that night, insisted that Kennedy had survived and his death was an elaborate hoax. She suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. On the night of Kennedy’s funeral, singer Bobby Darin remained by his grave in Arlington until dawn, sleeping on the ground and claiming to have experienced what he called a “metaphysical illumination” that had transformed him into a “new me, a better me . . . striving for only one thing: to help the world change toward goodness.”
What did he have?
Many are haunted by Kennedy’s phantom presidency. Two decades after his death, Ralph Bartlow Martin wrote, “I have no doubt at all that if nominated he [Kennedy] would have been elected. And if elected, a great President, maybe greater than his brother. But they would have killed him.” As Kennedy lay dying, Jack Newfield told John Lewis, “I can feel history slipping through my fingers.” Four decades later, Lewis says, “I thought that if this one man was elected president, he could move us closer to what many of us in the movement called ‘The Loving Community.’ ” Former Kennedy aide Peter Edelman still believes that his presidency “would have influenced the tone and direction of American politics for de cades.” Edwin Guthman, who worked in the Kennedy Justice Department, writes, “To know anything about him is to know that had he lived and won in 1968, he would have been a great President.” Look correspondent Warren Rogers told an interviewer in 1997 that his presidency would have left “a far more decent, a far gentler and less uncouth country than we are today,” and the political commentator Mark Shields, who worked for him in the Nebraska primary, says, “I’ll go to my grave believing Robert Kennedy would have been the best President of my lifetime.”
Ask Shields, Mankiewicz, and other former Kennedy aides what his presidency would have meant, and you invariably hear the word different: “This would be an entirely different country,” “Everything would be different,” or words to that effect. Ask how things would be different, and you hear two narratives: one describing Kennedy’s presidency and the other, its legacy.
Imagining his presidency is easy because, as even his enemies would concede, he meant what he said. So it is likely that he would have negotiated a settlement to the Vietnam War soon after his inauguration, saving the lives of the two million Vietnamese and twenty thousand American servicemen killed during the Nixon administration. Because he would not have bombed Cambodia, America would have escaped the trauma of Kent State and Jackson State, and Cambodia would probably have escaped the murderous Pol Pot regime. The Watergate would be just another apartment building, and America would have avoided the disillusionment and cynicism following that scandal. Had Kennedy won the presidency, young and minority Americans would have had a champion in the White House. The riots and protests marking Nixon’s first year would have been blunted, and Kennedy might have convinced Americans that real “immorality” meant poverty, racial discrimination, and an unnecessary war. Had Kennedy beaten Nixon in 1968, both parties might not have embraced—or at least not so readily—the sound bites, focus groups, stage- managed appearances, screened questions, bogus spontaneity, and other corrosive hallmarks of Nixon’s successful campaign. And had Kennedy won, then the guiding principle of Nixon’s campaign as spelled out in his secret 1968 manual—“The central point of scheduling is that the campaign is symbolic, i.e. it is not what the candidate actually does as much as what it appears he does [that matters]”—might have been discredited rather than emulated.
Frank Mankiewicz defines what a Kennedy presidency would have meant: “This would be a totally different country, not like it is today, with the political machinery grinding against itself, sending off sparks.” But what kind of oil was Kennedy proposing to pour into the jammed political machinery of the time? Might it still be effective?
What did he have?
The obvious answer to Sylvia Wright’s question is that he had his last name and his position as the oldest surviving brother of a beloved and martyred president. But even this is insufficient to explain the intensity and longevity of the grief following his assassination, nor are his youth, eloquence, and good looks, although they made his death more heartbreaking. They are not enough because had he been assassinated or died of natural causes before running for president, or in the early days of his campaign, it is inconceivable that two million people would have turned out for his funeral train, or that there would ever have been such a train, or that his phantom presidency would remain so haunting. Had his assassination not been preceded by his eighty two-day campaign, it is also inconceivable that 92 percent of the residents of Harlem would have claimed to be mourning him more than JFK, or that Norman Mailer would have admitted loving him “by five times more in death than life,” or that at his funeral tears would have coursed down the cheeks of both Tom Hayden of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, two men at opposite ends of the Democratic Party’s political spectrum, or that more photographs of him would still be hanging in congressional offices than of any other former member of the House or Senate, or so it is said.
It is Robert Kennedy’s campaign that explains the grief, reveals how he would have freed America’s jammed political machinery, and answers Wright’s question and its obvious corollary: What did he do during those eighty- two days?
His campaign explains why authorities assumed that his assassination would spark riots in black neighborhoods equal to those following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., why the Pentagon’s new riot- monitoring unit, the Army Directorate for Civil Disturbances Planning and Operations, immediately went on a state of alert, and why almost twenty- five thousand California National Guard troops were readied to move into the ghettos. The military was not alone in forecasting a violent reaction. Two weeks earlier, Tom Wicker had written in the New York Times, “The people of the ghetto are volatile and suspicious and militant; if they believe Kennedy has been ‘dealt out’ by the Democrats their response could be angry and even violent.” Many of Kennedy’s black supporters had also expected the ghettos to explode as they had for Dr. King. They seemed almost embarrassed that they had not, and explained that their people had still been reeling from the King assassination and were too shattered to lash out again.
Kennedy’s campaign also explains his popularity with black Americans, why some called him a “blue- eyed soul brother,” why Charles Evers’s reaction to his assassination was wailing, “My God! My God! What are my people going to do?” and why John Lewis responded by, he says, “crying, sobbing, heaving as if something had been busted open inside,” even though he had not wept for Martin Luther King Jr. His campaign explains why many of the same Midwestern farmers, factory workers, and white ethnics who would vote Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes into the White House, voted for Robert Kennedy in the Democratic primaries, and why Fred Papert, who managed his advertising campaign, is justified in believing that millions of Americans would have turned out for his funeral train, even if it had traveled through the Deep South or Far West, “all those areas where everybody thinks people are different, ultra- conservative, and reactionary.”
One of the reporters covering Kennedy’s campaign called it a “huge, joyous adventure.” Revisiting it can also be a joyous experience because no credible candidate since has run so passionately or recklessly, or without the customary and ever- expanding carapace of consultants, pollsters, spinners, and question- screeners. Nor has anyone put poverty at the center of a presidential campaign, except John Edwards, excited minorities and the poor as much, been trusted as much by both blacks and working- class whites, or criticized the American people so brazenly. Try to imagine a mainstream politician saying, as Kennedy did in a New York Times essay, “Once we thought, with Jefferson, that we were the ‘best hope’ of all mankind. But now we seem to rely only on our wealth and power,” or, as he did on Meet the Press: “I am dissatisfied with our society. I suppose I am dissatisfied with my country.” You cannot because today’s thin- skinned electorate would never tolerate such criticism.
Revisiting Robert Kennedy’s campaign can be heartbreaking because it resembles a kind of slow- motion suicide, and because one knows who, and what, is coming next; not just the second assassination of a Kennedy, but Talking Points, Red and Blue States, That depends on what the meaning of “is” is, and Bring ’em on! Revisiting it is also tricky because he was at his best during those eighty- two days. Author Wilfrid Sheed, who worked for one of Kennedy’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, would later concede that Kennedy’s campaign had been “what his life had been about all along, and that his death henceforth would serve principally to direct our eyes to it,” adding, “For those few weeks at least, Bobby became a very great man, transcending his own nature and even some of our quibbles with it.”
One of Kennedy’s friends told biographer William Shannon, “You never know which Bobby Kennedy you’re going to meet,” and Shannon, writing about Kennedy while he was still alive, called him “rude, restless, impatient,” but also “brilliant, inspiring, forceful.” It was this second Bobby Kennedy who campaigned for the Democratic nomination that spring. Because Kennedy was at his best during his last campaign, one is tempted to highlight his missteps to avoid appearing too partisan. Hays Gorey of Time said that some reporters covering the campaign did just that, admitting, “At some point it sank in on most of us that there was something real and good and decent about the candidate. Yet we had to regard his every move as suspect or we weren’t being good reporters.”
Bobby Kennedy was no saint. He had a quick temper, and he could be cruel to those he disliked or who had disappointed him. He had worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1954 and retained an affection for McCarthy longer than was seemly. He had been a tough and merciless interrogator while serving as chief counsel to a Senate committee investigating the penetration of labor unions by organized crime, and a demanding and hard- boiled manager of JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign. One of JFK’s aides told Washington Post reporter Richard Harwood that there had been a “good Bobby and a bad Bobby” in 1960, and the bad one resembled “a petulant baseball player who strikes out in the clutch and kicks the bat boy.” But Harwood noted that that side of Bobby Kennedy was not in evidence in 1968. Instead, “What came out most . . . was his gentleness,” he said. JFK adviser Ted Sorensen remembered the Bobby Kennedy of the 1950s being “militant, aggressive, intolerant, opinionated, somewhat shallow in his convictions . . . [and] more like his father than his brother [JFK],” but believed that by 1968 he had transformed himself, abandoning his hard line on the Cold War, repudiating the Vietnam War, and becoming deeply troubled by poverty and racial injustice.
While serving on these Senate committees in the 1950s and as his brother’s attorney general and principal adviser in the early 1960s, Bobby Kennedy had become acquainted with the government’s darkest secrets. He knew about President Kennedy’s adulteries and America’s involvement in the coup resulting in the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. He had investigated and interrogated union bosses corrupted by the Mafia, approved and encouraged CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, authorized wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr.’s telephones in the mistaken belief that two of his associates were Communists, and turned a blind eye to attempts by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to intimidate and discredit King. But because he knew all this, he also knew more about the inner workings of the government and the White House than any presidential candidate in history, and he ran for that office with eyes wide open, understanding the risks he was assuming and hatreds he was unleashing by becoming the second Kennedy in a decade to seek it.
Although he had only served in the Senate for three years, he was more qualified to assume the presidency than John Kennedy had been in 1960. He had been an excellent attorney general—some thought the best in history—and had served as a kind of assistant president, witnessing the Bay of Pigs debacle firsthand, playing a pivotal role in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis, conducting clandestine negotiations with Soviet diplomats, and supervising the CIA. Since his brother’s assassination in Dallas he had become more contemplative and sensitive, and felt more guilty over his role in embroiling America in the Vietnam War, and his brother’s choice of Lyndon Johnson as vice president. There was also, for him, the possibility that something he had done—perhaps his obsession with eliminating Fidel Castro, or the enemies he made by pursuing mobsters and corrupt union officials—had prompted his brother’s assassination.
Revisiting Robert Kennedy ’ s campaign has never been more timely. In 1968, young men who could not afford to pay for college were drafted and died in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam. Four decades later, poor young men and women volunteer for military ser vice to earn the money for college tuition and die in disproportionate numbers in Iraq. In 1968, as now, an unpopular president was waging a controversial war that had divided Americans and poisoned the nation’s relations with its allies. What Kennedy said about that war could be said verbatim about Iraq:
For it is long past time to ask: what is this war doing to us? Of course it is costing us money . . . but that is the smallest price we pay. The cost is in our young men, the tens of thousands of their lives cut off forever. The cost is in our world position—in neutrals and allies alike, every day more baffled and estranged from a policy they cannot understand.
There is a failing of generosity and compassion. There is an unwillingness to sacrifice.
We cannot continue to deny and postpone the demands of our own people while spending billions in the name of the freedom for others.
We have an ally in name only. We support a government without supporters. Without the effort of American arms, that government would not last a day.
The front pages of our newspapers show photographs of American soldiers torturing prisoners.
During his campaign, Kennedy spoke of a nation where “the affluent are getting more affluent and the poor are getting poorer,” a situation that the late journalist David Halberstam summarized in a sentence that could have been written four de cades later: “The rich were getting richer in America and the poor were getting poorer and by and large the rich were white and the poor were black.” In 1968, riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. highlighted the chasm between white and black Americans. Thirty- seven years later, Hurricane Katrina had a similar effect. On November 15, 2005, some former passengers on Kennedy’s funeral train gathered with several hundred others at the Capitol for a “memorial commemoration” of Robert Kennedy’s eightieth birthday. (Had he been celebrating in person, he would have been a year younger than former presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush). One searches in vain for similar events marking the landmark birthdays of presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, but if anyone considered it unusual to be marking Robert Kennedy’s eightieth birthday thirty- seven years after his death, they remained silent. Instead, the unspoken assumption was that his presidential campaign had never mattered so much, and the unspoken question hovering over John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and others offering tributes was which one had the courage to raise the issues that he had, and campaign as he did.
Following speeches and the presentation of the annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, a video was screened showing the devastation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Its only sound track was a speech that Kennedy had delivered at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968, two days after announcing his candidacy. And so, as black residents of New Orleans waded through their flooded streets, Kennedy could be heard saying, “I have seen these other Americans—I have seen children in Mississippi starving. . . . I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America.” As they stood on rooftops, waving at helicopters, he said, “If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must end the disgrace of this other America.” As they milled outside the convention center, he said, “But even if we act to erase material poverty there is another great task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction—a lack of purpose and dignity—that inflicts us all. Too much and too long we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.”
The stars may never be aligned as they were in 1968, and Americans may wait de cades for another year as pivotal, or for another eighty- two days that become the axis upon which such a pivotal year turns. Or perhaps not. There are things that Robert Kennedy did and said during his campaign that only the brother of a martyred president could have done and said, but there are others that another candidate could easily do and say, if the American people demanded them. John Nolan, who scheduled many of Kennedy’s appearances that spring, believes, “What he did was not really that mystical. All it requires is someone who knows himself, and has some courage.”
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